I was asked a question earlier this week that is worthy of consideration. The question pertained to James 5:14. Why do we not do this? Or, to ask in a different sort of way, why do we not call the elders of the church and pray over the sick as some other churches do (as the question was posed to me)? Those who are members of the Lord’s church have a desire to do things in Bible ways and say things in Bible ways. They are perplexed, however, when we see a Bible way, like in James 5, and wonder if we really mean what we say.
Let us break down the passage into its component parts (James 5:13-18): 1) there was a human response (5:13), 2) there is a human response and a call for another human response (5:14), 3) there is the Lord’s response (5:15), 4) there is a human response and an illustration (5:16-18). We will focus our attention on 5:14.
People of all walks in life both suffer and get physically sick (a distinction is made in v. 15 between the physically sick and spiritually sick). In 5:14, those who are physically sick are to call for the elders of the church. The one who is physically sick is not called upon to pray or administer anything to self; moreover, this does not appear to be a gathering of the saints at an appointed assembly—the assumption being “the sickness is serious enough to restrict the mobility of the sufferer,” perhaps even being near death (Moo, p. 238; McKnight, p. 435). The “them” of 5:14 refers to the elders. In 5:13, on the other hand, the one who is suffering is to pray (the nature of the suffering unspecified). Thus, what appears to be taking place here is some physical ailment that is serious enough to call for a particular kind of action.
There are three things involved in the action of the elders: first, they are to “pray over him;” second, they are to anoint the ailing one with oil (the reason for the anointing and the kind of oil used is unspecified); and third, they are to do this “in the name of the Lord” (by the Lord’s authority). With this being done, James said the prayer of the elders, in faith, will save (heal) the one seriously sick (5:15).
It appears that the anointing with oil was for symbolic reasons, not medicinal. Whether something miraculous is in view or not, scholars differ. The significance of the healing, however, was in relation to the prayers of the faithful to the Lord and the Lord hearing that prayer and granting the desire (5:15).
Is it proper, then, for some to call for the elders of the church and pray for the one who is seriously sick? It seems to me this is proper, though not a command as established by New Testament dictum. In other words, if one is seriously sick and there is a desire for the elders to pray for (and over) the sick one, then doing so seems quite reasonable. This action can encourage the sick and others present, but in every case, it is the Lord’s doing as to whether one is relieved of the sickness or not.